Monday, February 18, 2013

Making myself vulnerable

Late last week I had a very good session with my coach. Her opening sentence set the tone for our meeting. She told me about a recent incident in her life that was extremely personal citing it as a low point in her career. She appeared visibly shaken and perturbed - uncharacteristically so. I was curious but also wanted to help her "clear" herself and asked if she wanted to share and she did. I did not realise then how this would set me on a path of making myself more vulnerable. I just knew I felt more comfortable talking to her about a difficult problem I have on my hands.

In March I am scheduled to attend a meeting with a room full of people who do not like the direction in which my organization is headed as a social enterprise. They view me as a competitor who is not playing nice, given the contracts we are bidding on in their regions, albeit, through an open bid process. They would have me do nothing or conduct business in what they perceive as being more collaborative. I believe I have acted with integrity and have been open and transparent, although I may not have been proactive enough in reaching out to them. A recent incident confirmed their distrust and all I knew to do was to take a defensive stance. I realized then this would further entrench them in their position and me in mine and only worsen the status quo. I had to approach this meeting differently. I have to find common ground by communicating creatively or make peace with the direction we were taking and not act and feel defensive. But how?

My coach started out by exploring what I wanted to change. "Well", I said, "I want to build greater trust". "What values of yours do you want them to experience?", she asked. "Well, my honesty, passion and commitment to the greater good that these differences should transcend", I replied. She then asked that I connect with those values with my heart while we role played, with her taking on the role of one of agencies that was going to give me the cold shoulder at minimum or be downright confrontational. It was the most difficult half hour I have spent in a long time, since I could not connect with my values sufficiently to stop taking a defensive stance, which she was quick to point out. After much struggle, I intellectually ( and not experientially) hit upon the approach that was going to work. Connect with the heart without the need to prove anything. State factually without offering an opinion as to what happened and then ask questions remaining curious and in the present without wanted to "solve" anything. Just this approach would change the tone of the conversation and bring about changes that were not planned or intended. In a sense I would make myself completely vulnerable. So, as homework, I decided to try this in my everyday interactions.

My first experience was an utter failure. Here's what happened. We drove down to Pittsburgh this weekend. After visiting the temple there, we decided to have dinner at a local grill known for its Pizza. A belated valentine's day celebration of sorts. I entered the restaurant with expectation of a nice evening. We were greeted by a very unfriendly hostess who then handed us over to an equally bland faced waitress. When I changed my drink order she was visibly annoyed and for the rest of the evening she did not make eye contact with me. I was put off. I noticed then that we were the only Indians in a room full of white folks and so I was quick to jump to conclusions and mumbled to my husband "such racism". If I had practiced what I have set out to, I could have talked to the waitress, shared my experience of not feeling welcome and asked her if there was something I had done to offend and even apologized for changing my order and causing her inconvenience. Instead, I remained outraged leaving without a glance in her direction or a thank you. Making oneself vulnerable is easier said than done - even in a situation where I had more power than the person I was interacting with.

Interestingly, Bloomberg has an article in a recent issue on a young tech entrepreneur wannabe who has embarked on a social experiment to face a hundred rejections in a variety of social settings to gain a thicker hide when approaching VCs for funding. An example is one situation where he approaches a professor at his alma mater, the University of Texas, Austin, and asks if he could teach his class, only to be promptly turned down. As a collateral gain to posting his rejections on YouTube he has become a sensation with quarter million hits and growing, and a Bloomberg article. Hats off to this young man! I dont have his courage. However, I am prepared to begin with baby steps. Just to be present in every situation, authentic and truthful. Today I did better when I noticed a trigger, when interacting with my husband. I checked my impulse to act defensively and just remained curious and present. The ensuing conversation was open, interesting and fun filled. Let's see what tomorrow brings when I ask a few people I know if they would be willing to share their experience of me. In other words, what impression they have formed of me. You can share yours too! Hopefully, by the time this meeting rolls around and for evermore after that I will continue this practise to enrich my life and those of others around me so we can freely interact with each other without our egos getting in the way!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Early morning at Kapali temple

When I am in Chennai and have company to walk with me I wake up before the crack of dawn and make the pilgrimage to the Kapaleeshwarar temple. The walk through those crowded Mylapore streets is not easy even at that early hour. There are people milling about, waking up in their beds on the footpath, or setting up their vegetable or flower stalls. The roads are busy with cars and two-wheelers hurtling to beat the rush hour traffic. Its hard to find one’s footing while avoiding stepping on garbage or being run over. Nestled in this bustling corner of the city is the ancient Kapaleeshwarar temple which is said to have been built by the Pallavas in the 7th Century A.D. Kapalam means head and the temple gets its name from the legend that Brahma showed disrespect to Shiva on Mount Kailash and Shiva retaliated by plucking one of Brahma's heads (God of creation with 4 heads). However, to appease Shiva, Brahma installed a Lingam (symbol representing Lord Shiva) at this site for the “Lord of the head”, "Kapaleeshwarar". His consort Karpagambal is said to be performing a penance to restore her original feminine glory having come here as a peacock under a curse, giving this location its name as the abode of the peacock “Mylapore”. Here devotees also worship the 63 Shaivaite saints, the Nayanars, and the four Vedas. The famous Theppakulam or water tank, adjoining the temple, stands as a Chennai landmark, having purified devotees for centuries. Nowadays no one bathes in that tank but it still represents a marvel of urban planning having spawned a rich and diverse cultural community around it. Due to its location in the heartland of India's arts and cultural capital, Chennai,it has inspired scores of musicians to compose songs in its praise in the South Indian classical Carnatic music tradition.

However, it is not the legend of the place or its cultural history that fascinates me. It is just the awesomeness of walking through massive gates reaching 20 feet into the sky, that have stood for over a thousand years welcoming the millions of devotees who have passed through with a prayer on their lips, hope and joy or a plea for support and sustenance in their hearts. Within the temple's quadrants time stands still. When I walk on the ancient stones laid there by human hands I think of all the life energy that has flattened these stones underfoot. As I enter the dark inner sanctum to behold the dieties lit only with oil lamps, the musty smell assails me and evokes an experience so primeval as if I have reached into a timeless corridor abandoning my individual identity. My ego submerged, I experience a sense of oneness with the throng of devotees who strain towards the priest to place their hand over the flame that was held before the dieties, just a few seconds prior, and eagerly receive the sacred ash or vermillion that I then smear on my forehead. If I am lucky and have a hair pin I clip the flowers that I gratefully receive from the priest, to my hair. The oil lamps have stained the dark stone walls with grease and the smell of the ancient comingled with the fragrance of the incense, camphor, flowers and coconut water evoke in me feelings of intense nostalgia, so like the call of the womb. There is a sense of deja vous, of having been at this place several times before, over several births.

Shaivaite temples unlike their Vaishnavite counterparts have an austerity about them that glorifies renunciation and withdrawal of senses from worldly pleasures. As I step into the Kapali temple, and for the few moments that I spend lingering in that ancient monument I forget the commerce and activity that goes on just a few feet from that entrance and feel a quiet serenity from a merging of the past, present and future in one composite moment of stillness. I experience a suspension of time and space with no great compulsion to go anywhere, be anyone or do anything. I am content to just walk consciously placing one foot in front of the next and soaking in the energy of a live monument where the worship is sincere and the space is accessible to all - to walk about, sit in quiet contemplation, chant, sing, even rest or partake of the free food devotees distribute. In India where space has such premium, ancient monuments like the Kapali temple provide dynamic spaces that keep the community spirit alive. I go to the temple to lose myself and become one with that spirit.